It was well documented heading into today’s season finale against the Carolina Panthers that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed a lot of help to get into the postseason. One way to get in was to help their own cause and win against their NFC South adversary in the Panthers, who won the division last season and reached Super Bowl 50.
The Buccaneers were able to do their part, but because of the outcomes of a couple other games will not qualify for the playoffs this season. Tampa Bay picked off 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton three times and a key 2-point conversion stop helped seal a narrow 17-16 victory and ended the Buccaneers’ season at a respectable 9-7. The win gives hopes to a franchise that has improved in the win column the last couple of seasons since finishing a poorest 2-14 in 2014 and giving the Bucs the No. 1 draft pick, which would be eventually current quarterback Jameis Winston.
Tampa Bay heading into the contest got help from the Dallas Cowboys last Monday night, when they soundly defeated the Detroit Lions. The Buccaneers also needed victories by themselves, the Cowboys again, Titans, Colts, 49ers, Lions, with the Giants and Redskins playing to a tie. Though the Titans and Colts did pickup wins, the Cowboys were not able to come through, as they played many of their reserves in a meaningless season finale on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Dirk Koetter’s squad came out with a promising first possession in the opening quarter, as Tampa Bay went 10 plays. 60 yards and the drive concluded with a 33-yard field goal by Roberto Aguayo. The Panthers (6-10), however, answered back on their very next drive and drove easily 75 yards on a mere six plays, ending on a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for 65 yards.
Winston was off on several throws on the afternoon, missing Mike Evans and Russell Shepard on some open looks downfield. The only turnover through the air blunder would come late in the first quarter when Winston tried hitting Adam Humphries on a short route to the outside and the ball would be intercepted by James Bradberry with 3:12 remaining in the period. Both teams had an immense amount of trouble trying to move the football offensively with any kind of consistency. Winston finished 20 of 35 for 202 yards, with one score and one interception and a fumble. Newton didn’t fair better whatsoever, completing 18 of 32 for 237 yards, one touchdown and three picks.
Tampa Bay got a pick six in the third quarter when Brent Grimes jumped a pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. and took it back to the house to give the Buccaneers a 10-7 lead. Carolina tied the game back up at 10-all with 6:42 left in the third quarter on a 54-yard field goal by Graham Gano, who missed three field goals on the day after missing just five all season long. The Buccaneers took the lead for good late in the fourth quarter on a nifty scramble by Winston to his left and finding Evans on the front pylon. Carolina did score with under 20 seconds remaining on a short Newton to Kalvin Benjamin connection. Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera opted to go for the win instead of the tie and Newton’s throw was deflected away from the intended target of tight end Greg Olsen by safety Bradley McDougald.
The win to end the season becomes bittersweet, as it comes on the heels of a two-game losing streak after winning games in a row and what looked like what could be Tampa Bay’s first playoff trip since 2007. Though the Buccaneers will fall just short, they have laid the foundation for next season and the expectations will be even higher as Winston enters his third season as the team’s starting quarterback and Koetter goes into his third with the team, second year as the head coach.